In the second part of the “Literary Criticism and Literary Theory” section of Reading and Writing about Literature, I found historical criticism to be the most familiar to me. This theory involves “background reading about the life and times of an author” (Gardner & Diaz 176). I’ve been engaging with this theory since I was in high school, and I’ve already been engaging with this theory in our Writing about Literature course. Particularly, many of my blog posts and our class discussions about The Taming of the Shrew were based in historical criticism. There were multiple footnotes throughout the play to help us better understanding the meanings of certain words in Shakespeare’s time. We also discussed how gender roles and punishment were regarded in Shakespeare’s time, which involves historical criticism. By engaging with historical criticism, we can gain a better understanding of literary works that we might not have fully comprehended before, especially ones that are centuries old.
At first, I was confused at the difference between historical criticism and cultural studies. I immediately related to cultural studies, especially the trend that “attempts to broaden the canon” beyond “middle to upper-middle class, well educated, heterosexual white males” (175). In my American Literature course, our professor referred to how much of what we study in English classes is written by “dead white guys.” And he didn’t mean this in an offensive way – he noted that their contributions are valuable too – but it’s true that often times there isn’t much diversity in English curriculums, and that’s missing an opportunity to learn more about different cultures. We read a diverse amount of literature in his course and read background on the authors to understand more about how their lives influence their work, so cultural studies played a large role in that course. While historical criticism helps us understand how to interpret a text based on the time period it was written, cultural studies seems to focus more on how a text and/or author fits into that particular culture.
In terms of theories that were unfamiliar to me, there were two that stuck out: postcolonial criticism and reader-response theory. Postcolonial criticism focuses on “writing from former British colonies around the world” (175), which is something I am not super familiar with doing. However, I feel like this criticism could be applied to The Color Purple, which I read last semester, because in one part it deals with a British company tearing through an African village to build a road. Everything that the character of Nettie went through in Africa could be analyzed through this lens.
I was also confused by the reader-response theory, because I was not sure how you could turn that into an entire research paper. This theory involves trying to “understand the process by which we make meaning out of words on a page” (179). It reminds me of cultural studies in a way, because it deals with how different factors affect the reader’s perception of a text. However, I think reader-response theory can incorporate aspects of many other literary criticisms to understand how and why people interpret texts differently. For example, I think you could write a research paper about The Taming of the Shrew analyzing the differences in interpretation of the text over the years, or even the differences in interpretation between males and females.
Source: RWAL 9 (2 of 2)